Raila Odinga: A legacy of sacrifice & statesmanship

Kenya held elections on August 9 in a presidential poll that pit veteran opposition leader Raila Odinga against erstwhile ally William Ruto.

On the surface, a number of other factors enter into the equation, suggesting that a Raila Odinga presidency is more likely than ever. For many Kenyans and observers around the world, the last four years have reaffirmed Raila Odinga’s statesmanship. Odinga has gone from being a staunch opponent of Uhuru Kenyatta to a close collaborator in the interests of Kenya, proving that he can put country above self.

And it is that rare quality that Kenya has the opportunity to honour with an Odinga victory. The trajectory of Odinga’s time in politics gives one the sense that he is a reincarnation of Nelson Mandela in the Kenyan context.

To compare Odinga and Mandela, one must first understand what made Mandela tick. Mandela spent 27 years in prison, forgave his tormentors and jailers, became president, did not seek vengeance, and served only one term.

Raila Odinga is poised to be remembered as the true reincarnation of Mandela as a statesman of repute in the eyes of Africa and the world, based on his approach to politics and Kenya’s position as one of Africa’s great nations.

Following the 2017 general elections in Kenya, the Supreme Court of Kenya overturned the presidential election result. Although Odinga did not run in the newly- organized elections, it was regarded as a bitter end to an election season.

To control the emotional intensity of the moment, Odinga, was at the forefront of urging calm and telling his supporters that Kenya was bigger than their allegedly ‘stolen victory.’

A few weeks later, Odinga had warmed up to President Uhuru Kenyatta, leading to the creation of the Building Bridges Initiative (BBI), a deal that saw a ceasefire between Odinga and Kenyatta and was intended to chart a new path for Kenya.

Odinga's embrace of Kenyatta was a rare occurrence, comparable only to Mandela's embrace of F.W. De Klerk and the vanguards of Apartheid South Africa. Of course, Kenyatta cannot be equated with Apartheid's legacies.

However, the animosity between Odinga supporters and Kenyatta supporters could have been worse than that between Mandela supporters and supporters of the apartheid regime at the time. Odinga was imprisoned in the 1980s by the KANU regime of then-President Daniel Arap Moi. He eventually fled the country in 1991, only to return to join opposition politics.

He strangely entered into a Memorandum of Understanding with KANU (to form New KANU) in 1997, which stunned not only his supporters, but the entire country and the world. The KANU relationship ended in a sour note, but it began to shape Odinga’s image as a tolerant politician whom Kenya would entrust with state affairs.

Following the split with KANU, Odinga became the most powerful opposition figure in Kenya. Odinga was the best bet to defeat Kenyatta in the 2002 elections, in which Daniel Arap Moi did not run but fronted, Uhuru Kenyatta.

He had the numbers, the spirit, and the trust of Kenyans. However, aware of historical concerns, Odinga participated in negotiations that resulted in him endorsing Mwai Kibaki with the famous ‘Kibaki Tosha’ (‘Kibaki is sufficient’) endorsement.

While many analysts believed it was about the Kikuyu question, Odinga believed that Kibaki, more than Kenyatta, who was more Kikuyu than Kibaki and represented Moi at the time, carried the opposition’s aspirations to change Kenya once and for all.

Odinga demonstrated his willingness to collaborate with anyone in the interest of Kenya. Raila Odinga had a falling out with Kibaki by 2007 and vied against him in the election of that year.

Kibaki won the election that year under mysterious circumstances, sparking post-election violence that threatened to tear Kenya apart. Although supporters were outraged, it is worth noting that Odinga was cleared of all blame during this ordeal. He eventually joined the late Kibaki’s government of national unity, becoming Prime Minister.

Odinga ran against the new duo of Uhuru Kenyatta and William Ruto in both 2013 and 2017, believing that his victory had been stolen. Odinga was seen at State House Nairobi with Kenyatta and Ruto immediately after the elections in 2013, a photo opportunity that could have saved Kenya from descending into another round of post-election violence.

Despite the fact that he went on to criticize their administration for a variety of issues, Odinga maintained that the two were his brothers. Many Kenyans and foreign observers were taken aback when President Kenyatta announced his support for Odinga in the 2022 elections.

Many analysts believe that during their time working together, Kenyatta realised he was dealing with someone who cared more about Kenya’s interests than any other Kenyan he had worked with before.

However, for those who have followed Raila Odinga’s political career, Kenyatta’s endorsement was seen as a crucial acknowledgement that Kenya was better off in the hands of a man who could be trusted to put self above country.

If Baba wins, Kenya, Africa, and the world will have witnessed the reincarnation of Nelson Madiba.

The writer is a lawyer and social justice activist.

© 2016 Observer Media Ltd